5.29.2007

Ron Harbour: How Auto Manufacturing Will Evolve

The future of automotive manufacturing is a continuing trend toward greater flexibility produced with fewer resources.


            That’s the view of consultant Ron Harbour, who spoke at the recent Automotive News Manufacturing Conference. And while the thoughts offered by Harbour – head of Harbour Consulting and author of the annual Harbour Report on auto plant productivity – weren’t revolutionary, they help trace where the industry has gone and where it is likely to go.


            In materials prepared for his speech at the conference, Harbour outlined what he called the evolution of the manufacturer/supplier continuum. (I encountered delays in flying to Nashville for the conference, so I arrived near the end of Harbour’s talk and didn’t actually hear all his comments.)


            Harbour looked at production of 1,000 vehicles per day at three points in time: 1987, 2007, and his view of 2027.


            While those 1,000 vehicles might have required a plant of 3.5 million square feet in 1987, the number is down to 2.5 million square feet today. He didn’t try to predict plant size in 20 years.


            But he did note that a 1987 plant was typically one multi-floor building, while today it is three to four separate but close one-story buildings – with a similar configuration likely 20 years from now.


            (By the way, while at the conference I toured the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, which opened about two decades ago. It’s a collection of buildings, though more two-story than one-story. A Nissan speaker at the conference noted that having several buildings increases the number of outside walls and makes it possible for the plant to have about 130 loading docks – which increases the ability to deliver parts exactly where they are needed.)


            While the 1987 plant may have had 3,500 workers, the number is more like 2,500 today, with Harbour predicting it will drop to 1,500 in 2027. And he argued that the number of suppliers, having gone from about 2,500 in 1987 to 500 today will drop to perhaps 100 in another two decades.


            More importantly, the production process will be more flexible, he predicted. A production line could produce only one vehicle in 1987, and perhaps two or three today, but in 20 years one line will produce an infinite number of models, he said.


            Similarly, the product complexity might only have been two models for those 1,000 vehicles in 1987, and perhaps five to 15 today, but that number will also be infinite in 2027, Harbour contends.


            He also stated that modularity, nonexistent in 1987 and somewhat in evidence today, will become part of the basic build philosophy. In addition, Harbour said, part sequencing, which didn’t exist in 1987 and today involves 50 to 100 key parts, will encompass 500 key parts in 20 years.


            Is Harbour right? What are your thoughts?


 

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